The New York Times Accidentally Publishes Metamodern Literary Art As a Serious Thinkpiece

On October 2nd, Brian Lombardi--a father of three from DeKalb, Illinois--published an article on page D11 of The New York Times titled "27 Ways to Be a Modern Man."

The title was in keeping with a recent spate of articles intended to scold contemporary males into thinking and acting differently than (it is presumed) they currently do. Consider, for instance, "31 Things Every Man Should Own", an Esquire article that insists, with great self-seriousness, that men categorically require such varied items as an ax, a shoulder bag, a wool blanket, a Frisbee, "grease", and a lucky charm. The list was preceded by a strange concoction of babble ("part of being a man is knowing how to exploit simple things") and bluster ("the things men own represent knowledge and skill"). Surely, some men must have wondered why a waiter's corkscrew is required tack for every male in America--including the tens of millions of us who, for whatever reasons, rarely or never drink.

Another recent listicle, from Men's Fitness, offered a slimmer list of 19 presumptively masculine goods, including in its catalogue cologne, a fancy watch, and a universal remote. The message of the essay was clear: the man who wears no scent is no man at all; the man who tracks time by any means other than one devised in the 17th century has to be, on some level, kidding himself; and the man with even two remote controls at home signals thereby, indubitably, his innumerable shortcomings. In case the point wasn't entirely clear, Men's Fitness preceded its list with an admonition that a man lacking even one of these 19 items (e.g., "sunglasses") was essentially "childish."

Perhaps exhausted by such esoteric prescriptions, Lombardi managed to convince the Times to publish an article that Slate immediately dubbed "the weirdest thing the Times has ever published." Lombardi's odd list of essentials included the following: a melon baller; a shoehorn; "Michael Mann's films on Blu-Ray"; "only 'regular' colas"; and a full-size bar of Irish Spring.

Lombardi also observed that real men never "pin" tweets; never leave their family's electronic devices unconnected to chargers at night; never use a cell phone rather than scrap paper for their grocery list; and never fail to use the "proper names for things" (a real man "says 'helicopter,' not 'chopper' like some gauche simpleton").

Among those inclined to take the above items seriously were, apparently, the editors of The New York Times.

Yet perhaps they can be forgiven, in light of the seemingly reasonable advice the piece also offers? For instance, Lombardi recommends the following for all men, and in so doing seems not just earnest but, moreover, convincingly thoughtful:

  • Men should be considerate of others in public places (e.g., not make unnecessary noise in movie theaters);
  • men should avoid pettiness in public (e.g., by insisting on finding the perfect parking space at a grocery store);
  • men should at least consider having children or (presumably) being a Big Brother to a young person, as doing so makes a man "more of a complete person";
  • men shouldn't wait until they've had a fight with their significant other before surprising them with something nice (e.g., flowers);
  • men should be willing to cry when and as necessary;
  • men should not own guns; and
  • men should know enough about their significant others' likes and measurements to buy them, on a whim, gifts they can use and enjoy.

Yet Lombardi's other advice is head-scratching. Is it really true--and does Lombardi really believe--"the modern man never lets other people know when his confidence has sunk. He acts as if everything is going swimmingly until it is"? Maybe? Should we deem it chivalrous or over-bearing if a man insists on "lying on the side of the bed closer to the door. If an intruder gets in, he will try to fight him off, so that his wife has a chance to get away." Perhaps a little of both?

As the Digital Age enters its second half-century, "metamodern" art--that is, art that inscrutably juxtaposes opposites like sincerity and irony, optimism and cynicism, and naiveté and knowingness--is achieving cultural saturation. First coined by Mas'ud Zavarzadeh in 1975, about halfway through the Digital Age's first half-century, the term suggests that as humanity moves deeper and deeper into a matrix of virtual spaces it becomes harder to discern reality from unreality. "Metamodernism" is, consequently, an anecdote to the cynicism and despair that postmodernism's "end of history" and "death of authorship" theses deeded to Generation X. Metamodern art implicitly assures us that we can still be serious and hopeful even in times that seem degraded and full of despair--but also that this seriousness and hope need not deny that the world is in pretty bad shape right now.

The intent of Lombardi's list of essential items for men is inscrutable, and like much metamodern writing it's likely to get more attention than usual as a result--as in an Age in which conclusive information seems no further than our fingertips, we shiver with excitement at the little pockets of mystery and even sublimity the Internet still affords. In this case, that mystery and sublimity is the result of a metamodern act of authorship that The New York Times failed to recognize as such because we still think of cultural products as either "good" or "bad," "healthy" or "unhealthy," "sincere" or "ironic." But this is a time of mass commerce in virtual economic and sociocultural spaces; can we really be so sure about the intent or effect of the data we consume? To some, Lombardi's list will read as a satire of its predecessors in Esquire, Men's Fitness, and elsewhere; to others, it will read as a failed and thoroughly presumptuous attempt to issue, quite earnestly, some ridiculous prescriptions for the modern man. Those alert to the metamodern qualities of contemporary living will dig deeper, and see that Lombardi's list is both silly and profound in equal measure, and therefore entertains and annoys us even as it enlightens us, too.

Maybe that's Lombardi's point: that men absolutely need to take stock of themselves and seek self-improvement, but shouldn't expect the process to permit easy answers. At a time when men are being sold, en masse, dangerous dogma online--like "Red Pill" philosophy, or other more inchoate prescriptions endemic to the "manosphere"--Lombardi is telling us that there's a time for all things, and no perfect solutions. "On occasion," writes Lombardi, "the modern man is the little spoon. Some nights, when he's feeling down or vulnerable, he needs an emotional and physical shield."

And, surely, that's sometimes true.

Seth Abramson is an Assistant Professor of English at University of New Hampshire and the Series Co-Editor of Best American Experimental Writing, whose next edition will be published by Wesleyan University Press in late 2015. His most recent book of metamodern lit is Metamericana (BlazeVOX, 2015). For more on metamodernism, see the additional articles at this link.